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Chinese Prosecutor Indicted in Extralegal Operation Fox Hunt

  • July 31, 2021
  • Clayton Rice, Q.C.

Operation Fox Hunt is a global covert program administered by the People’s Republic of China that uses threats and intimidation to target dissidents in the Chinese diaspora under the guise of a campaign to repatriate corrupt Communist Party members to face criminal charges. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has said that Beijing uses undercover security officials and proxies to silence critics of President Xi Jinping including threats of retribution against family members resident in China. Last week a federal grand jury in New York returned a superseding indictment charging nine defendants with conspiracy to act in the United States as illegal agents of China and engaging in interstate and international stalking.

1. Introduction

On October 28, 2020, the previous indictment (here) was unsealed in the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn, charging eight defendants with conspiracy to act in the United States as illegal agents of China. Six of the defendants were also charged with conspiracy to commit interstate and international stalking. The charges stemmed from an alleged plot to coerce a Chinese citizen identified as John Doe, resident in the United States, to return to China by threatening his wife and daughter in the United States and other relatives in China. “The Chinese government’s brazen attempts to surveil, threaten and harass our own citizens and lawful permanent residents, while on American soil, are part of China’s diverse campaign of theft and malign influence in our country and around the world,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. (here)

The indictment prompted public statements by John Townsend, the Canadian spy agency’s head of media relations, expressing similar national security concerns about Operation Fox Hunt. In an article titled CSIS warns China’s Operation Fox Hunt is targeting Canada’s Chinese community by Robert Fife and Steven Chase, published in The Globe and Mail edition of November 10, 2020, Mr. Townsend suggested that “fear of state-backed or state-linked retribution” can force individuals to submit to foreign interference. “When individuals in Canada are subjected to such harassment, manipulation or intimidation by foreign states seeking to gather support for or mute criticism of their policies, these activities constitute a threat to Canada’s sovereignty and the safety of Canadians,” he said. (here)

In a speech to the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., reported by Julian Borger in The Guardian on July 8, 2020, Mr. Wray said the principal aim of Operation Fox Hunt is the suppression of dissent. He used the example of one target who was offered the choice of “going back to China or killing themselves.” (here) “China describes Fox Hunt as some kind of international anti-corruption campaign. It is not,” he continued. “Instead, Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by Xi to target Chinese nationals who he sees as threats and who live outside China, across the world. We’re talking about political rivals, dissidents and critics seeking to expose China’s extensive human rights violations.” Mr. Wray went on to say “the FBI is now opening a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours” and almost half of the 5,000 active counterintelligence cases are related to China.

2. Background

On July 22, 2021, a year later, the independent nonprofit newsroom, ProPublica, released an extensive report titled Operation Fox Hunt: How China Exports Repression Using a Network of Spies Hidden in Plain Sight by Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg. (here) According to the report, Operation Fox Hunt and a program called Operation Skynet were launched in 2014 and have purportedly caught over 8,000 fugitives. The report describes some of the targets as “public officials and business people accused of financial crimes”, not alleged murderers or drug kingpins. Others, however, “are dissidents, whistleblowers or relatively minor figures swept up in provincial conflicts.” (p. 3) Nonetheless, U.S. national security officials say that over the last seven years, China’s fugitive hunters have stalked hundreds of people including citizens and permanent residents. Here are two passages from the report describing how Operation Fox Hunt exerts transnational repression:

  • Undercover repatriation teams enter the country under false pretenses, enlist U.S.-based accomplices and relentlessly hound their targets. To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the United States. In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption. But in the United States, where such kidnappings are more difficult, Fox Hunt teams have relied mainly on coercion.
  • Fox Hunt, experts say, is part of a calculated offensive to send a message that no one is beyond the reach of Beijing. As the Chinese Communist Party builds the largest police state in history, it is exporting repression. A report by Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights group, concluded that China conducts “the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” (pp. 5-7)

Human rights lawyer and visiting professor at the University of Chicago, Teng Biao, said reprisal against family members is “the one thing that Chinese dissidents most fear”. Almost every Chinese expatriate has at least one family member living in mainland China. “Our fear is that our family will be targeted, they will have trouble. We have to worry about the personal safety of family members in China. That’s why we have to practice self-censorship,” Professor Biao said. Chinese security forces are also in global pursuit of others in the regime’s crosshairs including Tibetans, Hong Kongers and the Uyghurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region. On January 20, 2021, the United States officially accused China of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghur minority. (here)

3. Chinese Prosecutor Indicted

In the superseding indictment filed in the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn, on July 21, 2021, two of the nine individuals charged are Tu Lan and Hu Ji. Tu Lan was employed as a prosecutor with the Hanjang People’s Protectorate and Hu Ji was a police officer with the Wuhan Public Security Bureau. (here) The indictment describes an elaborate international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil and intimidate “John Doe #1, Jane Doe #1 and their adult daughter” to force John Doe #1 to return to China against his will. Chinese government officials travelled to the U.S. and directed nonofficial operatives to surveil and harass the targets including threats of harm against them and their families.

The indictment alleges that since September 2016, Tu Lan, Hu Ji and others including Michael McMahon, a private investigator in New Jersey, caused the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to issue “Red Notices” for John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1. A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action. According to the Red Notices, John Doe #1 was wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement, abuse of power [and] acceptance of bribes” under Chinese criminal law articles 383, 385 and 397, which carry a maximum penalty of death. Between 2016 and 2019, Tu Lan and Hu Ji traveled to the U.S. and directed several individuals, including Mr. McMahon, to coerce John Doe #1 to return to China.

Tu Lan, Hu Ji, and Zhu Feng, a Chinese citizen formally a resident of Queen’s, New York, are alleged to have worked with Mr. McMahon to gather intelligence about and locate John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1. To evade detection and frustrate a criminal investigation, Ms. Lan directed one of the co-conspirators to “delete all the chat content” between the conspirators. The defendants are specifically charged with attempting to achieve their objective by “pressuring John Doe #1 and his family members by imprisoning and threatening to imprison John Doe #1’s family members in the PRC” and “transporting John Doe #1’s elderly father to the United States to convey threats to John Doe #1”.

In a concurrent news release by the U.S. Department of Justice, Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said “[u]nregistered, roving agents of a foreign power are not permitted to engage in secret surveillance of U.S. residents on American soil”. Acting Attorney General Mark Lesko of the Department of Justice, National Security Division, described it as “an affront to justice of the highest order” when a prosecutor and a police officer direct, participate in, and then attempt to cover up a criminal scheme. (here) Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, immediately responded claiming that the U.S. was slandering the country’s efforts to pursue criminal suspects overseas.

4. Conclusion

On October 28, 2020, when the previous indictment was released, the case was announced as “the first of its kind” by Seth DuCharme, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “What makes the case really stand out is that it directly involves the efforts of a foreign power to conduct unilateral activity on U.S. soil,” Mr. DuCharme said. (here) Mr. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, added that “[s]ome of the individuals may well be wanted on traditional criminal charges and they may even be guilty of what they are charged with.” But, in many instances “the hunted are opponents of Communist Party Chairman Xi – political rivals, dissidents, and critics.”

Irrespective of whether Operation Fox Hunt targets dissidents and critics, fugitives from criminal prosecution, or both, the covert campaigns carried out by China in the United States are clear violations of the rule of law and international norms. (here) “Without coordination with our government,” Mr. Demers said, “China’s repatriation squads enter the United States, surveil and locate the alleged fugitives, and deploy intimidation and other tactics to force them back into China to face certain imprisonment or worse following illegitimate trials. There are many established ways that rule of law-abiding nations conduct international law enforcement activity. This certainly isn’t one of them.”

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